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John McGrath | Johnstown is in good company as tourist destination | Columns

During the past several years, numerous organizations in the Johnstown region have made significant progress in enhancing our area’s outdoor recreation assets to reposition us as a “mountain town” that is a very desirable place to live, work and play. 

Fellow Pitt-Johnstown faculty member Skip Glenn and I have been tracking these efforts with our Resident Quality of Life (QoL) studies. Our most recent findings were very encouraging, with Johnstown’s composite Resident QoL ranking in the mid-range of mountain towns in the Appalachian region.

But how does Johnstown rate as a tourist destination among mountain towns? I delved deeper into this question with a new study and the results are also encouraging for Johnstown: our region is very competitive with other more well-known mountain town destinations such as Asheville, North Carolina, and Bennington, Vermont (see table).

For this study, I examined data for mountain towns across the Appalachian region of the eastern U.S. using an interactive map provided by the Appalachian Trail (AT) Conservancy. This map traces the route of the AT from Georgia to Maine as it traverses 14 states along 2,190 miles of trail. This allowed me to identify towns located along the trail, as well as those located in nearby mountain areas that are subsets of the Appalachian Mountain range, ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to the Allegheny and Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, to the Blue Mountains of Maine (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2020).

Johnstown is included in the Allegheny Mountains portion of this mountain town mix, along with Altoona and State College. The towns I studied are mostly located at higher elevations with an average elevation of 1,069 feet above sea level ranging from Boone, North Carolina, at 3,333 feet above sea level to Burlington, Vermont at 200 feet (U.S. Geological Survey, 2020). The average population for each region is 258,044, ranging from Greenville, South Carolina, with a population of 906,626 to Bennington, Vermont, with 35,631 residents (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020).

I analyzed each of these towns using free and publicly available information across six measures using a new model of Tourist QoL that I developed while on sabbatical at the College of Charleston last year. The model looks at community characteristics and assets that cater to tourists and is patterned after the Resident QoL model Glenn and I have used in our recent studies, but with some major modifications based on the literature on tourist motivations. 

The measures I employed in this new Tourist QoL model are relaxation resources, including a community’s lodging and restaurant assets, using Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data; socialization resources, such as entertainment and leisure venues, also using BLS data; weather, using an area’s number of sunny days data from the Best Places website; safety, using Federal Bureau of Investigation crime rate data; air quality, using Environmental Protection Agency data on an area’s number of good air quality days; and health care resources, using BLS data on the number health care professionals in a community.

For benchmarking purposes, I calculated a U.S. average score for each of these six measures and then made that average equal to an index value of 100. The composite score for each mountain town is simply an index equal to the average of the indices for all six measures for each community. This composite index allows for easy comparisons to be made with the U.S. index of 100. Communities scoring above 100 perform better than the U.S. average, and those below 100 perform below the U.S. average.

Here are the highlights:

• Lynchburg, Virginia, rates No. 1 with a composite Tourist QoL index of 128, with Charlottesville, Virginia, ranking a close No. 2 with a composite index of 126.

• Morgantown, West Virginia (index of 117), Boone, and Burlington (both with 114) and Harrisonburg, Virginia, (113) rank in a second tier.

• Johnstown (index of 107) ranks in the third tier, just below the well-known mountain towns of Asheville, North Carolina, and Bennington, Vermont, (both with an index of 110), along with two other towns in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, Altoona (107) and State College (105). Pittsfield, Maine, and Rutland, Vermont, (108) also scored in this tier.

• 17 mountain towns scored below Johnstown’s tier including well-known tourist locations in Winchester, Virginia, (index at 98) Blacksburg, Virginia, (96), Knoxville, Tennessee (94) and Chattanooga, Tennessee (91).

So what does this all mean for our region? The biggest takeaway is that the Johnstown area offers resources to tourists that are very competitive with mountain town meccas such as Asheville and Bennington. I believe we can use this good news on Tourist QoL, along with our positive scores in Resident QoL, as strong ammunition to dial up promotion of our area, particularly to the target audience of professionals looking to relocate from major metropolitan areas to smaller, safer towns in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. 

I have shared these findings with organizations that promote our area including Visit Johnstown Pennsylvania, the Cambria Regional Chamber of Commerce, Vision 2025, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, Lift Johnstown, and the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies so they can use these data to spread the good news about our region’s strong mountain town QoL, and hopefully attract visitors and new residents to our area.

John McGrath is a professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Results of this study have been published in the May 2020 edition of the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Issues.

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